One-Footedness: The Key to Balance

Human beings negotiate the world on two legs, a skill mastered in toddlerhood. As children we are well balanced and swift. Then one day in mid-adulthood, we look at our children and realize that they are fast out-performing us in skills that require balance. When did balance become more difficult?  Of course we cannot define that point because life sneaks up on us, nibbling away at skills we do not practice because nature works assiduously to conserve energy.  Motor and mental tasks we do not practice get put to rest.

What’s involved in balance?

We maintain balance by taking in three types of sensory input and adjusting muscular activity accordingly. The three input systems are vision, messages from hair-like projections in three fluid-filled canals set at right angles to each other in the bone of the middle ear, and continuous reporting from delicately engineered receptors in our muscles and tendons that measure stretch and tension.  We can learn to balance without the first two components of the balance system, but not the third. To demonstrate the importance of the input from the muscles and tendons, try getting up and walking after one foot has fallen densely asleep from pressure on the nerves which are the highways for sensory information on its way to the brain. Even if you can wiggle the foot because motor nerves are more resistant to pressure, you cannot use it without knowing where it is.

Use it or lose it” applies to balance

Much of modern adult life involves little more than moving from one form of sitting to another, which gives the feedback systems in the eyes, ears, and muscles and tendons little exercise. Over time, balance skills deteriorate, and eventually falling happens with simply tripping or changing position or direction. Falling is the cause of many hospitalizations and, often, the injuries incurred lead to death. Living well and independently over the decades depends in no small part on maintaining the ability to walk without falling. Fortunately, balance improves with practice, and we have ample opportunity throughout the day to engage the balance systems and give them a workout.

Waking up the eyes and ears

Eyes are easy. Look around while you walk. Off to the side, up, down, straight ahead. If you are a straight-ahead looker most of the time, looking around may make you feel a bit unsteady at first. But your brain will begin to coordinate the changes with the information coming in from the ears and the muscles, so it will get easier. Once it does you can add more head movement, following your gaze. That will add more movement of the inner ear canals, which can become very accustomed to minimal movement. Young adults taking dance lessons for the first time or grandparents taking grandchildren on park equipment might be surprised to find themselves dizzy because of long unpracticed movements that involve spinning in circles or bending over. The ears are reporting unusual movements but with practice they will re-learn and stop sounding alarms. Deliberate exercises in head tilting and turning, such as the ones widely prescribed for benign positional vertigo, can speed the process.

Waken the muscle receptors by paying attention to walking

The stretch and strain receptors in the muscles are active whenever we are upright, but also lose function – even in walking, which is the most frequent and complex motor function we perform. Walking involves the subconscious coordination of over 300 muscles in a series of controlled falls that move the 200 bones of the skeleton forward or backwards in space, sometimes with the addition of upward or downward travel on stairs or ramps. Walking requires one-footed balance, with one foot bearing the body’s entire weight while the other foot swings forward. Landing the forward moving foot prevents the body from falling as it moves forward.

As the years pass, the body’s motor system tries to conserve energy by allowing you to use fewer, large muscles rather than more numerous small ones to accomplish the task of walking. Balance suffers and it is harder to adjust quickly to uneven terrain or surprises that throw you off balance. Learning to re-engage and strengthen all the smaller muscles devoted to one-legged balance re-awakens a lot of the sensory input and improves stability in all your upright activities.

Exercises for one-footedness

A good exercise for developing one-footed balance involves standing on one foot while barefoot (elevated heels throw the center of gravity forward), lifting the other knee in front of you and using a countertop for support. The gluteal muscles in the buttock on the side of the weight bearing leg will be forced to contract to keep the pelvis from dropping on the other side. The entire foot, powered by the lower leg muscles, is the stable platform that supports the rest of the body and the big toe stays in active contact with the ground. As strength and balance improve, try moving away from the support of the counter, getting the free knee up to a right angle in front of you and then swinging it down and back and a little behind you, concentrating on keeping the pelvis level and stable and the trunk upright. Adding toe lift exercises on stairs – dropping the heels a little below the stair level and pushing up from there – adds to the strength and flexibility of the ankles and to sensory input from the many intrinsic foot muscles and lower leg muscles.

Taking the exercises out for a walk

Once you get the feel of the muscle contractions necessary for one-legged balance, then try to feel the same sequences of activity while walking.  Good, upright posture helps. Your head weighs 10-14 pounds when directly over your spine, but the weight doubles, triples and even quadruples in proportion to how far in front of the body it is. If you have the habit of jutting your head forward with a curve in the back of the neck, or looking at the ground while you walk, the work of balancing increases proportionately. Keep the chest lined up over the pelvis and engage the trunk muscles – the so-called core – by trying to lift the pubic bone upward with the front of the abdomen. The core muscles maintain proper pelvic tilt. Then, while walking, try to feel the one-footedness you practiced while standing next to the kitchen counter and the ankle motion you felt doing toe lifts.

The action in walking is at the hip, ankle, and foot. The role of the knee is to let the leg bend as necessary. As you shift your weight to one foot, the gluteals contract in the buttock to hold the pelvis and prevent the released side from dropping. In the brief phase before the supporting leg begins to push you forward, notice the entire sole of the foot. Its connection with the ground begins with the heel planting down and continues as the body weight rolls forward. The knee will be straightest when you push through and are about to plant the new foot.

Do not neglect the feeling coming from the toes – especially the big one as you push off and begin to move the other leg through. Toes add a significant amount of surface area, increasing the available sensory information fed into the motor system and they contribute to the push phase of the gait. Notice also how the ankle moves as the heel lifts off the ground. Notice all of it as your other leg is swinging through and really try to relate the sensations to the one footed balance exercises you have done to practice.  

Notice other gaits

And while you are out walking and noticing your own one-footedness, take a look at some of the gaits you see. You will begin to learn the risk factors for falling. You’ll see people using only large muscle groups, initiating the leg swing by lifting the entire side of the body, from the shoulder down. They are already off balance. Their bodies must tip to the opposite side to allow the advancing leg to clear the ground. When the new leg lands and the weight shift begins again, the gluteals are not engaged, there is no push off from the hip and the foot, and the other side begins to lift from the shoulder. On a sunny day you will see such a walker’s shadow shift from side to side. Sometimes there are physical problems that impair walking balance, but for someone in good health, without neurological disorders like neuropathy, working to make the shadow move in a straight line pays off in a longer functional life. 

                          A Balanced Life

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,


Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. 


All the king’s horses, 
and all the king’s men,

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

No one ever said why Humpty fell off the wall. If he’d managed to stay up there, he would have been OK. That’s the way it is with older people with thin bones. Osteoporosis doesn’t make people fall but it makes them break when they do. The real question is why they fall.

Why do older people fall down?
Falling is a risk of age because balance, strength, flexibility and speed decline over time. Even if you have no problems with balance it is worth understanding how balance works – how you maintain an upright posture and adjust to changes in the terrain under your feet, and how you manage to catch yourself and not fall as your foot slips on an icy path. The good news is that “use it or lose it” applies to balance, strength, flexibility and speed. You have some say in their preservation.

The systems that create balance

Your sense of balance comes from the integration of messages from muscles and joints, eyes and ears. Try experimenting and you’ll feel how these sensations contribute to balance. First, stand on one leg. Then try doing it with your eyes closed. Then try doing it after spinning around in a circle, and disturbing the fluid in the inner ear. With each maneuver, you subtract some of the sensory input to your brain and make it harder to control the muscle strength and tone needed to keep you upright. Fortunately, we don’t have to “think” about the actions that keep us balanced. They happen automatically.

What happens when the balance systems go awry?

When some part of the entire balance system goes awry, you feel “dizzy” or “lightheaded” or “off” or “tipsy.” The doctor who hears your complaint will ask you questions related to all the components of the balance system, and to all the medical conditions that can disrupt your eyes and ears, your peripheral nerves, your spinal cord, or your brain. He or she may order hearing tests or brain scans, blood tests or electroencephalograms. Patience, careful observation of symptoms, and systematic ruling out of problems is the best approach.

Vertigo

A sense of spinning dizziness, called vertigo, makes balance almost impossible. Vertigo is most frequently the result of an inner ear problem Three semicircular canals deep in each ear lie at right angles to each other and are filled with fluid that moves when you move your head. The fluid stimulates nerves that add information to the balance system. Viruses can affect the ear and produce profound vertigo with even tiny head movements. Some tumors of the nerve to the ear (acoustic neuromas) affect balance and hearing. A benign condition called Meniere’s disease causes episodes of hearing loss and vertigo. Though acute ear problems are sometimes at fault, very often dizziness that comes from the ears is a result of disuse of the inner ear canals. Ears that are unaccustomed to change in position because body movement has become limited and slow no longer cope well with rolling over in bed or turning the head quickly, and such routine activities can make the room spin. This is called benign positional vertigo and the treatment consists of exercises of the head and neck to re-accustom the semicircular canals to movement.

Muscle and joint receptors keep track of the body in three dimensions

Tiny receptors in the muscles and the joints perceive gravitational stress and muscle tension and movement. These receptors tell the brain where the body is and how much muscle tension is needed to hold you up and to move the way you intend to move. Balance suffers when nerves don’t function properly (neuropathies) because of diabetes, kidney disease, vitamin deficiencies, medications, exposure to toxic substances, or a variety of esoteric blood and autoimmune diseases. Balance also suffers when pain messages from joints and muscles override the compensatory adjustments that have to be made quickly to avert a fall.  Arthritic diseases of the spine, spinal tumors, or diseases that affect the peripheral nerves can disrupt the pathways in the spinal cord that carry the messages from the nerves to the brain.

Vision: an important component of the balance system

Visual input contributes a lot to the brain’s interpretation of the world and to where the body is in three dimensional space. Darkness, by removing visual clues, sometimes uncovers balance troubles before they are apparent in good light. Of course, people who have never had vision have developed balance systems that function perfectly well without visual input and sighted people who lose vision eventually adapt their balance to its lack.
Brain: coordinating the input and determining the output

The brain takes incoming sensory information and converts it to a sense of where the body is in space. It also sends messages back down the spinal cord and out over the motor nerves to the muscles to stimulate them to contract and relax in just the amounts necessary the body where you want it. Interference with these finely tuned functions can cause feelings of dizziness and imbalance that are harder to describe than the vertigo caused by ear problems. These sensations are termed central imbalance and can come from strokes, side effects from medicines, or a fall in blood pressure on standing up too rapidly. Less common causes are a variety of degenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, and cerebellar degeneration.

Keep you balance and you won’t have to retrieve it later

Even if you are young, practicing balance activities that challenge you and maintaining muscle strength, quickness and range of motion are useful habits that serve you well in youth as well as in older age. If you do slip, you will have the best balance possible and the strength required to get your feet back underneath you. Choices abound that give you opportunities to stimulate your balance circuits. Put your pants and socks on while standing. While you brush your teeth! where you can grab onto something if necessary, practice one-footed standing with eyes open, then closed. Do regular head rolling exercises, gently and slowly at first, to get those semicircular canals used to some movement or take dance lessons and get back to spinning movements. Make yourself move briskly at all times to keep speed in your repertoire. Squat completely and rise as often as possible when only bending is required. Try one-footed squats. Use the stairs instead of elevators. Balance on your toes, and on your heels. Walk an imaginary tightrope, frontward and backward. And if you still ride a bike or ski or dance or skate or run, keep it up. Unlike Humpty Dumpy, you’ll have a better chance of staying up on the wall.

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